Sean Hayes, up till now best known for his Emmy Award-winning performance as Jack McFarland on Will and Grace, gives a titanic performance as humorist, raconteur and pianist Oscar Levant once called the wittiest man in America, in Doug Wright’s new play Good Night, Oscar. Although Levant is not much remembered today, you can enjoy this character study and depiction of early late night television even if you have never heard of him before. While Will and Grace has made evident Hayes’ way with one-liners, Good Night, Oscar demonstrates that Hayes is able to dig deep into a character portrayal as well. Credit must go to director Lisa Peterson for inspiring this memorable performance.
Playwright Wright has had a successful career dramatizing little known episodes in the lives of real people, mostly famous. Beginning with Quills in 1995 about the Marquis de Sade, his career has continued through his Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife (2003) about transgender Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, his 2006 musical Grey Gardens (the Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Beale story) with the songwriting team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, Posterity in 2015 about the encounter between dramatist Hendrik Ibsen and sculptor Gustave Vigeland, and most recently the musical War Paint (2017), the Elizabeth Arden/Helena Rubinstein story, again reunited with Frankel and Korie.
In Good Night, Oscar, Wright has set himself a different task: the entire play takes place in one evening in November of 1958 when Levant was booked to appear on The Tonight Show with top-rated talk show host Jack Paar which for sweeps week had relocated to NBC’s Burbank, California, television studios from New York City for five days. For the opening show, the other guests booked were Hollywood sex symbol and actress Jayne Mansfield and ventriloquist Señor Wences. Levant was already famous on television as the man who viewers “hope they’ll catch him saying something on television they know damn well that you can’t say on television.” This was the beginning of what later became known as “must see tv.”
Unfortunately, Levant is two hours late and NBC president, Bob Sarnoff, waiting on tenterhooks, has bandleader Xavier Cugat on standby. Then Paar who is not worried finds out that Levant’s wife June has committed him to a mental institution due to his recent erratic behavior that she could no longer control. Now she has gotten him a four hour pass to attend his “daughter’s graduation,” i.e. The Tonight Show. And in walks Levant with his attendant Alvin and a suitcase full of medicine, with also his neuroses and hypochondria intact. However, will Levant agree to play the piano, particularly George Gershwin’s music which he was identified with, at the end of his interview with Paar? In the mood he is in, depressed over the voices in his head and his demons which give him no peace even under his doctor’s care, he is refusing to play. Sarnoff warns him to stay off politics, religion and sex for fear of offending some viewers but as you might suspect this does not happen.
While the other characters from Jack Paar to Bob Sarnoff to June Levant are thinly though charming portrayed, Wright’s portrait of Oscar Levant in the hands of Sean Hayes is three-dimensional and profound. We discover that Levant is haunted by his mentor George Gershwin (the ghost of which is played by John Zdrojeski) whose early death at age 37 has been a stumbling block for Levant who has not been able to write any more of his own original music but has dedicated his life to keeping Gershwin’s music alive.
An obsessive compulsive with many bizarre routines he must act out before he can move on from stirring his coffee to putting on his shoes, Hayes’ Levant is also the physical wreck described by his wife as “Eeyore in a cheap suit.” His physicality is remarkable displaying Levant’s compulsive gestures, trembling hands, facial tics and rocking and crumpling in his chair in mental agony. While the one liners are memorable, it is probably Levant’s mental state you will most remember. Hayes does go to the piano and plays ferociously the short version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which would make another person exhausted in a very impressive demonstration of virtuoso performing.
While the other actors are well cast and believable, the play is more interested in Levant and gives us less information about them. Ben Rappaport’s Jack Paar is suave and nonchalant but on the bland side. As NBC president, Peter Grosz is mostly tense and fearful of what sponsors and viewers might think. Emily Bergl’s June is charming as Levant’s long suffering wife June and we learn little pieces of their life together. Marchánt Davis gives a solid performance as Levant’s medical attendant Alvin Finney, the voice of reason, who is also worried about his own career in medicine if the attending physician finds out the ruse that has been perpetrated.
Most problematic is Zdrojeski as the ghost of the late George Gershwin. As most of us have seen photos of the composer, the actor is too tall, too handsome and too suave to be convincing – unless, we are seeing Levant’s version of him, and not a real depiction of their encounters. As Paar’s production assistant and Sarnoff’s nephew Max, Alex Wyse is amusing as a young man whose eagerness is matched by his poor judgment.
The settings by Rachel Hauck beautifully take us back to 1958 with Jack Paar’s dressing room, Levant’s dressing room, the set of The Tonight Show and a studio with a Steinway piano for the music sequence. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are spot on from the various men’s suits to June Levant’s flowered print bouffant dress and matching coat to Max’s multicolored sweater vest. The hair and wig design by J. Jared Janas helps create the look of the period. The lighting by Carolina Ortiz Herrera & Ben Stanton creates a different environment for each setting while the sound design by André Pluess is a thing of beauty.
Though Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar may not tell you all you want to know about its characters, it gives Sean Hayes a tour de force in the role of wit and hypochondriac Oscar Levant and he lives up to its potential, giving what may be the best performance on Broadway at this moment. You will feel that you have met the man warts and all. Director Lisa Peterson best known for directing new American plays keeps the wit and the hijinks bubbling at a smooth pace. The play also depicts the new medium of television as it was changing from an intellectual’s medium to a mass market venue. Today’s age of trash talk television and radio is a direct descendant of what we witness in this play. And let us not forget that the many witty lines recognizable from Oscar Levant’s career are extremely enjoyable too.
Good Night, Oscar (through August 27, 2023)
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.goodnightoscar.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission